The Forgotten Hero from Orkney

The story of Orkney’s greatest explorer, Dr John Rae, and the search for the North West Passage was the interesting subject of the talk by David Vennard to a recent meeting of Largs Probus Club. Dr Rae was to become a highly respected explorer who mapped around 1,750 miles of Arctic coast either on foot or in small boats. 

Born in 1813 he spent his youth hunting wild fowl, fishing and sailing on Orkney, which would aid his future career as an explorer. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University and the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifying in 1833, and on his return to Orkney he signed on as ship’s surgeon on the Prince of Wales bound for Canada where he became the surgeon and clerk at Moose Factory, spending his free time hunting and learning travel and survival skills from the indigenous population, who he highly respected, including how to use sleds and snow-shoes.

Rae was appointed by The Hudson’s Bay Company to finish the mapping of the Arctic coast, but he wasn’t a surveyor so trekked 1,200 miles on snow-shoes to reach his tutor and complete his surveying studies. He undertook his first Arctic expedition in 1846-7, exploring the Gulf of Boothia, discovering that Boothia was a peninsula and not an island, as had been thought. In 1848 he joined the search party looking for the lost Franklin Expedition for news of which there was a reward of £10,000 but it was not until 1851 that he saw the first trace of Franklin’s missing ships, Erebus and Terror, when he found a piece of wood and a part of a flagstaff containing the remnants of cloth.  

Another expedition in 1853-4 made the important discovery that King William Land was not a peninsula but an island and his discovery of the Rae Strait was the last link in a navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It was here Rae met Inuit who told him that a party of around forty white men had died of starvation on King William Island, resorting to cannibalism in an attempt to stay alive. He returned to London with this news which caused a storm of controversy when his confidential report to the Admiralty was leaked to The Times. 

Lady Franklin was furious that her husband’s expedition had been besmirched by the reference to cannibalism and led a campaign, supported by Charles Dickens, to have him removed from the history of Arctic exploration and a bust was erected in Westminster Abbey proclaiming Franklin as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. This destroyed Rae’s reputation, but he did receive the reward for bringing news of the fate of the Franklin expedition. 

After marrying Catherine Thompson in 1860 he worked on surveying the route for a telegraph link from Britain to Canada, via Iceland and Greenland and in 1865 he surveyed the Red River to Victoria for another telegraph link from America to Russia. 

Rae retired to Orkney before moving to London where he died in July 1893. His body is buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Allister McGregor thanked David for his excellent talk on an explorer many present were not aware of, which he hoped would inspire members to visit Orkney. He referred to a relative who had experienced being iced up on a ship in the St Lawrence, rather like the fate of the ships of the Franklin Expedition.

Largs Probus Club will next meet in the Willowbank Hotel on 7th February at 10am when Kevin Kerrigan will speak on the Lusitania.

Men over the age of 50 who are retired, or nearing retirement, are welcome to join the Club by completing our Contact Form.